Beneath the Crust and Beyond: Breakthroughs in Quantum Sensing Technologies

The race to develop Quantum Sensing (QS) applications with real business impact will soon intensify as more competitors stake their bets. While much uncertainty persists, the companies most likely to persevere are those that are able to translate quantum technologies into real-world applications with broad appeal.

In this research piece, we will be exploring opportunities in quantum sensing technologies that are able to measure and characterize phenomena at an atomic level. We will focus specifically on sensing capabilities and use cases.

For instance, quantum sensors promise to measure different physical properties with extreme sensitivity, including temperature, magnetic field, and rotation. However, the lack of quantum sensing hardware that could minimize environmental ‘noise’ (outside of labs) has been a barrier to deploying quantum sensors for real-world applications (Humnabadkar, 2022). Innovative approaches will have to be taken to ensure accuracy and precision in real-world environments, examples of which are shared in the case study.

Table of Contents

Quantum originated from Latin, meaning “an amount” and is used to refer to the smallest discrete unit of a natural phenomenon (Wright, 2022). By that definition, a quantum of light is a photon and a quantum of electricity is an electron. The diagram below showcases how three quantum technologies utilize atomic properties to bring valuable use cases to businesses.

With quantum sensors, we have the ability to detect and measure phenomena at the atomic level. Then we can leverage the sensitivity of subatomic particles to measure the states of physical properties, such as temperature, magnetic field, rotation, and orientation. This could enhance positioning systems, communication technology, and scanning geophysical areas for resources. We will share examples of some of these use cases below, applied particularly in the aerospace & defense, and shipping industry.

Source:  Buchholz et al., (2021)

The Growing Need for Quantum Technologies

Quantum technologies refer to the category of technologies that operates by leveraging the principles of quantum mechanics (Martin, n.d.). In layman’s terms, it refers to an emerging field of technologies that interacts with the behavior of matter and light. Then identifies any minute changes (at the atomic and subatomic scale) in the characteristics of matter and light to provide reliable insights related to the relevant natural environment (Squires, 2022). This produces exponentially higher accuracy calculations, which offers the possibility of significant breakthroughs across sectors that depend on timely and accurate geophysical information (i.e aerospace & defense, oil & gas, mining & exploration, etc.). 

Quantum technologies started gaining traction as industries faced the rise of highly complex problems where current existing algorithms simply lack the capability (specifically, computing “horsepower”) to address them.

As industries face disruptions at an accelerated pace, organization leaders face growing ambiguity and uncertainty in their decision-making process. This has rendered conventional polynomial algorithms obsolete in computing solutions when working with constraints from an interconnected and rapidly changing environment.

Definition of a polynomial algorithm: Leonid Khachiyan discovered a polynomial-time algorithm—in which the number of computational steps grows as a power of the number of variables rather than exponentially—thereby allowing the solution of hitherto inaccessible problems.

 

The broad technologies of quantum computing promise to exponentially reduce the processing time in solving these intractable problems, hence breaking Moore’s Law (Batra et al., 2021).

Moore's law is a term used to refer to the reproducible trend where a number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit (IC) doubles about every two years.

With this exponential computing power, quantum sensing technologies provide exciting future use cases for sensing, imaging, navigation, and object detection. Blitz et al., (2022) support this by stating that 69% of global executives claim quantum computing will bring an exponential step forward for industries in the future. 

What is Quantum Sensing?

Quantum Sensing (QS) technologies refer to advanced sensor technologies that bring exponential accuracy of measurements, navigation, exploration, and interaction with the environment.

These will provide insight into many fields such as personalized medicine, cancer detection, biological processes mapping, mapping of protein molecules, advanced geological exploration, and more. Quantum sensing uncovers changes in motion, electric and magnetic fields by collecting data at the atomic level (Batra et al., 2021). The most immediate value is Improving navigation systems with precise acceleration measurement which is used to achieve position data. 

As illustrated in the hype cycle figure above, Quantum Sensing technology is just reaching the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ where there are a fair amount of success stories for specific use cases. The advancements in this technology get more attention given their promising value proposition, inflating expectations. In comparison to Quantum Computing, which is still at the ‘Innovation Trigger’ stage as industries are identifying ideal use cases. 

Differences Between Quantum Sensors and Conventional Sensors

Quantum Sensors measure environmental activity by analyzing individual atom properties, which provide significantly better data than that achieved with conventional sensors. This delivers increased accuracy, as it is less vulnerable to interferences such as signal jamming or electromagnetic interference that is increasingly common with today’s light- and sound-based data sensors (BAE Systems, n.d.). 

As the performance of conventional sensors are at the mercy of these forces, quantum sensors promise to provide enhanced value for organizations in the Aerospace & Defense and Mining & Exploration sectors, providing maximum value from the delivery of highly accurate and reliable sensing information. Some other applications where quantum sensing technologies could deliver superior performance can be seen in the image below.

When understanding the capabilities of quantum sensors, it is best to note that there are two generations of quantum sensors. The first includes devices like microwave atomic clocks and superconducting quantum interference devices (SQUIDs), which have been available for decades. The emerging second generation includes gravity sensors, nitrogen-vacancy (NV) sensors, and other similar innovations. (McKinsey, 2021)

Quantum Sensing Applications with Distinct Advantages over Alternative Technologies

There is an expectation that second, and consequently third, generation quantum technologies are expected to become highly miniaturized, hence becoming more commoditized and easily integrated with other supporting technologies. However, these advancements are dependent on the availability of specialized talent in the field. With this in mind, in a world increasingly reliant on sensors, quantum sensing technologies could potentially provide significant advantages in a number of industries in 5 to 10 years, as illustrated in figure 1 above.

The 2nd Quantum Revolution

The 2nd Quantum revolution essentially refers to the technological frontier brought on by the deeper understanding of the quantum world, which enables precision control at the individual atomic level (Garisto, 2022). 

During the 1st quantum revolution, scientists began understanding the discrete nature of physical quantities (i.e the energy states in atoms). Examples of technologies that leveraged this understanding are GPS, MRI imaging, and lasers (Gourley, 2016). With the 2nd quantum revolution upon us, scientists are leveraging these rules to build devices that could use quantum properties for very specific applications (Dowling and Milburn, 2003).

The 2nd Quantum revolution refers to the technological frontier brought on by the deeper understanding of the quantum world, which enables precision control at the individual atomic level (Garisto, 2022). 

 Spotlight: QuantX Labs

Australian based startup QuantX Labs (previously known as Cryoclock) was awarded AU$4.8 million for integrating its flagship product, Sapphire Clock, into Australia’s leading surveillance system, The Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN). It provides 24-hour military surveillance at ranges of up to 3000km, based in Queensland, Northern Territory, and Western Australia. Partnering with BAE Systems and the Department of Justice, this lays the foundation for future advancements that enable detection of much smaller objects with increased sensitivity.

 

Financial Investment Trends

The global annual capital invested in Quantum Sensing has grown from $53.16M in 2012 to US $1.66B in 2021. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the period to be 41.08%. The amount of capital invested is on an increasing trend, surpassing $1B in 2021 which created the peak. The global quantum sensors market is approaching its early growth stage and is attracting significant investments due to the anticipated growth.

The United States leads investments for Quantum Sensing startups with $3B for the period. Europe has the second largest investments with $453M invested into significantly more startups for Quantum Sensing.

The Quantum Flagship initiative has the European Union committed to €1B quantum research projects over 2018-2028 (Kiltz, 2020). In Europe, the most funding was raised in the UK, followed by Finland and Israel. Overall, the fire to jump into funding quantum sensing is sparked.

Advancing Quantum Sensing Technologies

The United States and Europe have shown growing interest in advancing quantum sensing technologies. Over the past 5 years, Europe has had a cumulative 132 quantum sensing deals, compared to 74 deals for the United States. Interestingly, the US has had a cumulative $1.76B capital invested in quantum sensing deals, while Europe’s corresponding investments in the same period were $457M.

The lower value of quantum sensing deals in Europe is primarily due to the investments from the public sector, such as the European Commission. The US has higher investment activity from the private sector, where investment deals tend to be of higher value. Private funding into startups commercializing quantum technologies is limited in Europe compared to North America.

Innovate UK is the U.K’s national innovation agency and the most active investor in Quantum Sensing from the Public Sector. Responsible for accelerating innovation initiatives across the country through funding and human capital support. Since 2014, The UK’s National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP) continues to act as a strategic funder and catalyst for the rapidly growing UK quantum industry. With £60 Million awarded to business-led quantum projects in 2021 (UKRI).

In the private sector, we observed larger equity deal sizes in recent years have only recently reached the ‘Peak of Inflated’ expectations. This implies that investors are keen on funding initiatives that could be the shining example of quantum sensing technologies. There is a clear investment appetite for quantum sensing technologies, with investment deals valued above $1B occurring in the second quarter of 2022.

From 2020, Series C and Series D investments in Quantum Sensing technologies are increasing. This implies that quantum sensing providers are beginning to further develop their offerings.

From optimizing core offerings (Seed & Series A) to expanding offerings and their use cases (Series C & D). The shift toward later-stage investments took place in 2021 with a positive momentum moving into 2022. This investment trend may result in more impactful real-world applications using Quantum Sensing technologies.

However, this could also be problematic in a few years with reduced investments into earlier-stage companies, pressuring younger companies to deliver differentiated offerings in order to attract investments.

Case Study Learnings

A Quantum-Assured Solution for an Inertial Navigation System (INS)

Q-CTRL is a developer of quantum control infrastructure software designed to overcome hardware error and instability across various applications of quantum technology. The company’s quantum computing tools are designed for R&D professionals and quantum computing end users, thereby helping drive performance improvements through AI-driven error suppression embedded within quantum algorithms.

Advanced Navigation is a global leader in ultra-precise AI-enabled navigation hardware, which develops products and custom navigation technologies for sea, land, air and space. They are a global supplier of navigation hardware to organizations including NASA, Airbus, Boeing, Tesla, Google, Apple and General Motors.

Current inertial navigation systems (INS) tend to be unstable, limiting positioning accuracy in the absence of GPS. Q-CTRL, who makes quantum technology useful for real-world outcomes, worked with Advanced Navigation to develop a new hybrid approach to quantum navigation augmented by quantum control. Quantum control is a crucial element in ensuring the sensitivity of quantum sensors is calibrated to the environment it is operating in. Optimizing the hardware performance of these sensors.

Inertial Navigation Systems (INS) is an approach to self-contained navigation that uses measurements from accelerometers and gyroscopes to track the position and orientation of an object relative to a starting point and velocity. (Berrabah & Baudoin, 2011) INS is a navigation device that uses motion sensors, rotation sensors and a computer to continuously calculate by finding the position of a moving object.

Key Learnings & Insights:

  • Initial engagement involved a comparative analysis via detailed simulation capabilities. This helps determine the best hybrid architecture for the solution.
  • The hybrid approach combined the speed of conventional INS systems with the stability of quantum accelerometers This enables high positioning accuracy over very long periods of GPS restricted environments. 
    • This solution promises 180x improvement in navigational stability, providing highly reliable position, navigation, and timing information (PNT) showcased in pilot studies and tests.
  • The solution was based on validated atomic subsystems with which the Q-CTRL team had hands-on expertise.
  • Leveraging quantum devices that rely on measuring the energy state in atoms are more effective than classical navigation systems, which rely on electrical devices that gradually degrade over time.
  • The Q-Ctrl team identified how to best operate the hardware to preserve performance and even reduce system size. Using quantum control to reduce errors that come from applying an extremely sensitive sensor on ships and planes.

 

UKRI-funded Research for Underground Object Detection using Quantum Technology

The UK National Quantum Technology Hub is a collaboration between 7 universities, and industry partners focused on bringing disruptive capabilities to real world applications. Bringing together experts from physics and engineering from various universities and over 70 industry partners to provide significant economic and societal impact in the UK. The hub has pursued more than 100 projects, valued at approximately £100 million, and has submitted 17 patent applications to date.

Their projects span sectors such as healthcare, civil engineering, space, defense, energy, and transportation. An additional £23.5 million was received for the second phase of the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing to develop real-world applications.

Researchers from the UK National Quantum Technology Hub in Sensors and Timing developed the world’s first quantum gravity gradiometer outside of laboratory conditions. The gravity gradiometer was able to detect tunnels buried one meter below ground in real world conditions. This is a breakthrough for underground mapping provided by a quantum gravity detector.

Quantum sensors detect minuscule changes in motion and differences in gravitational, electric, and magnetic fields (Ratti, 2020). With this technology, exploring and monitoring underground environments could be achieved at exponentially lower costs and time. Eliminating the need for capital-intensive techniques such large-scale digging and excavating.

Beyond identifying buried objects, pipes, or tunnels, this could be applied also in high-value use cases such as identifying underground resources or integrating early-warning systems for volcanic activity and earthquakes. 

Key Learnings & Insights:

  • This achievement was the result of a public-private collaboration that was focused on commercialization and real-world applications. The collaboration included:
    • University of Birmingham
    • RSK – environmental, engineering and sustainability solutions provider
    • Dstl (Science division under UK Ministry of Defense)
    • Teledyne e2v
  • Significantly improved underground mapping leads to a number of valuable use cases.
    • Improved prediction of natural phenomena such as volcanic eruptions
    • Discovery of hidden natural resources and built structures
    • Reduced costs and delays to construction, including rail and road projects
  • The solution is also superior in overcoming range limits and environmental factors with which current gravity sensors are challenged. Allowing future gravity surveys to be cheaper, more reliable, and deliver 10 times faster. Reducing the time needed for surveys from a month to a few days.

 

Conclusion 

Quantum solutions have the potential to generate substantial revenue over the next decade. In these areas alone, there are estimates that QS could generate at least $5 billion in revenue by 2030 (McKinsey, 2021). Investments are only growing and the time to get in on this technological revolution is now. Leaders should consider outreaching to partners in the quantum sensing space to find new and exciting use cases for 2023 and beyond.

References

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